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Yarbrough: Water, taxes top state GOPs agenda
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Don't look now, but the state legislature opens for business in about eight weeks. You might want to hide the silverware.

To find out what we should be prepared for, I dropped by Jerry Keen's offices for a chat recently. Keen, R-St. Simons, is the House majority leader and a major player in the legislature. It will be a busy session, he said, but one issue dominated the conversation: water.

"A water management plan is at the top of our legislative agenda," he says. "We need to build more reservoirs, obviously, but that will be easier said than done."

Before a spade is put in the ground, there will be environmental issues, land acquisitions and the inevitable lawsuits. "In the meantime," Keen says, "we have to manage the resources we have."

I told Keen that some Democrats claim they would have solved the water problem by now had they still be in charge. "They had the governor's office and both branches of the legislature for over a hundred years," Keen said, "and didn't solve it when they had the chance."

Still, the majority leader says managing the existing supply of water during the severe drought will get bipartisan support and bipartisan opposition. "It is going to boil down to rural and urban interests," he believes.

That leads to the out-of-control growth in the Atlanta area. In my opinion, the local governments around Atlanta have been totally irresponsible in granting well-heeled developers carte blanche to build condos, townhouses and shopping centers with little or no concern for their impact on the infrastructure. These governments claim they need the revenue.

What they don't say is that for all the revenue the growth brings, it also brings the need for more roads, more schools, more water and -- yes -- higher property taxes to pay for them. It is a vicious cycle.

Keen says the answer is House Speaker Glenn Richardson's tax reform initiative, known as G.R.E.A.T. ("Georgia's Repeal of Every Ad Valorem Tax"). It is Richardson's idea to do away with ad valorem taxes and expand taxes on sales, uses and services. The monies collected through the tax would then be distributed to the local counties and cities and to local schools.

"This plan," Keen says, "would be an incentive for cities and counties to control growth and would give property owners a major relief from ever-increasing property taxes."

Keen, and the speaker, expect strong opposition from groups ranging from school boards to drugstores, but he says they are also hearing from a number of taxpayers who support the concept. Why bring up tax reform now when Georgia is in pretty good financial shape?

"Two reasons," the majority leader says. "The best time to look at an issue is when you don't have a crisis on your hands, and two, you don't want to wake up one morning and have to face that crisis because you didn't plan ahead."

I was curious about what happened to the GOP in Washington, and could it happen in Atlanta? "The national party failed to deal with tax reform, illegal immigration and other matters of vital concern to the American public," he says, "and we aren't going to do that in Georgia. We have taken on the tough issues and will continue to do so. While everybody may not agree with us, polls show that Georgians appreciate the fact that we are making the effort, and that includes tax reform."

With two public school teachers in my family, I suggested to Keen that he ask his colleagues to not go messing around in public education as legislators are wont to do, without first getting some input from classroom teachers. I hope he will. That would make all our lives easier.

It was a good conversation. Now, I plan to go see Dubose Porter, D-Dublin, the House minority leader, and get his views of the upcoming session. Something tells me he is going to have a different perspective.

But that's OK. That is how a democracy works. And it works well in Georgia. However, just to be on the safe side, you might want to hide the silverware.

Dick Yarbrough is a North Georgia resident whose column appears Saturdays and on